Monday, June 26, 2006


Smells Like Teen Mystery

The Night My Sister Went Missing by Carol Plum-Ucci (reader's advance: Harcourt, Nov 2006) took me a while to adjust to, but in the end I liked the way it was built: backwards (through character recall, not flashback) and in bits, frequently through the words of other characters, filtered by the narrator. Very layered, but altogether painting a convincing picture of a group of teens who are ready to leave the high school social nest they made for themselves early on and now have rather dirtied. (The author cranks up the social tension a notch by placing the kids on an island.) Really, the more I think about it, the more I consider this approach to teen fiction to be quite genius. A mystery thrives on half truths, or the half understanding of the narrating character; and isn't the adolescent mind the perfect soil in which to plant seeds that look black and white but blossom in shades of grey?

The story is this: there has been an incident on the pier at night, and it appears the narrator's sister has been shot. Because of an accident of architecture, the narrator and his friend are privy to the police interrogation of witnesses, most of whom are members of the same clique of senior high school students. The narrator has his own take on each of the witnesses, and the level of truth they are telling; the police detective is necessary, because the narrator himself is limited by his experience of the people involved, and can't get the whole picture without a little guidance. Conversation by conversation, we get at the truth; so that, by the end, the reader and the narrating character understand, and are ready to receive what washes up on shore. Even so, there's one more dramatic tragic twist, which teen readers will enjoy.

I also reread Black Maria and another early DWJ title, The Ogre Downstairs. There's no Chrestomanci in the former, but there might well be, in the character who was buried alive for twenty years, long enough to get a little distance and wisdom and do the right, Chrestomanci-like thing. (Rereading this story in middle age is eye-opening. DWJ is rather sociologically acute.) The second book I reread because of a comment Elder Sister made, about the careful building of character relations therein. Yes, very careful it is; designed so that each child of each family has an opportunity to work with another on a common goal and thus form a bond of respect. Particularly the boys—the girl (like her mother) is willing right from the start to make a go of the blended-family thing (that's a whole other discussion!). The pairing is most obvious in the last incident, when the two instigators of distrust are forced to fight back to back against a real threat, and are saved by the efforts of the whole family, the Ogre included.

Saturday, June 17, 2006


New Diana!

Thank you, thank you to the vile temptress (you know who you are) who gave me an advance proof copy of The Pinhoe Egg by Diane Wynne Jones (HarperCollins, October 2006). How could I resist? I mercilessly squeezed my week and got just enough time out of the thing to read it.

The Pinhoe Egg returns us to the England of Cat (Eric) Chant, who in this book is an adolescent living in Chrestomanci Castle. So there's no world-hopping; but there's plenty of other classic DWJ stuff: enchanted woods, different varieties of magic, animals who aren't what they seem, put-upon young people with repressed powers, deceptive vagueness.

(About that vagueness . . . Isn't DWJ just like Chrestomanci of the elegant bathrobe, really? When she gets most vague—when the characters are most mute and confused and carried along by events too big for them—that's when you know she's hardest at work, working up some enchantment that will unfold later and utterly delight you [and liberate her characters]. Sometimes it's too vague and deep—I never have understood the whole of Fire and Hemlock—but mostly is magic. Diana's own, special brand of magic.)

Anyway, here we are in the town of Ulverscote, just over the hill from Chrestomanci Castle, and things are about to get rather ragged for our heroine, Marianne. Gammer, the head of magic for the whole Pinhoe clan, has a set-to with some members of a related clan and then goes a bit mad. Meanwhile, back at the Castle, Cat Chant finds himself the owner of a proud horse with whom he has, it appears, a special sort of connection. Between the two places—the Castle and Ulverscote—is a wood, which isn't what it should be.

The book starts "while Chrestomanci and his family were still in the south of France." I know this is connected to a previous book, and I'll find out which one when I have more time. When I have more time . . . this chimed in my head so often, reading this book. I had such a keen sense with this book of its being laced with connections to others by DWJ. You can start with the big picture connection—Chrestomanci. I can see (and, if I had time, I would see so much more) why DWJ chose this particular one—or, maybe, these two—for this book, and not Gabriel deWitt. It's because Christopher Chant seems to specialize in the break up and enlighten tasks he's given to do here; and because Eric Chant, so muddled and oppressed himself at one time and a little bit still, is the perfect bridge for Marianne to get from Ulverscote to the Castle.

In this book, DWJ visits two themes she dealt with extensively in Archer's Goon and Black Maria. In the former, magic is used to bully, manipulate, work wrong and make a profit. It isn't quite so bad in this book, but there's definitely that slant of organized-crime break-up to Chrestomanci's task. In the village in Black Maria (I'm definitely going to reread this one), magic is split between the sexes, women's magic and men's magic, always at war but with a balance only just maintained (until something goes wrong)—a really compelling idea. The same is true in Ulverscote, and also present is the deeply suspicious peasant mind that does things because "it's always been that way." In such a place, the work of Chrestomanci is to bring enlightenment; to split the old hides and let the young blood out.

DWJ also, for some reason that remains to be seen, tears (quite literally) the curtain she has drawn between her magic and the traditional magic of the British Isles—all the boggarts, house nobs, brownies, pixies, etc. that she has eschewed or merely borrowed from, for the most part. Old magics and new magic (which Christopher Chant seeks out and schools, another of his tasks); the "motorized" bike is both grisly, when you think about it, and funny. Religion plays a part, too, a strange one. In these two aspects, the book connects to Fire and Hemlock, I think. If I had more time. . . .

Oh, by the way—it was a darn good read!

Wednesday, June 14, 2006


Thick and Fast

I begin to dig through the stack of books I received at BookExpo, and the thoughts fly out like dirt from a tunneling mole.

Kafka's Soup by Mark Crick (advance; Harcourt, Nov 2006), "A Complete History of World Literature in 14 Recipes," is a chuckle while you cook. The recipes are appealing, but it's the cooking directions that make the thing—imagine Boned Stuffed Poussins a la Marquis de Sade, if you will. I'm looking forward to seeing the finished art (the Hogarthian accompaniment to Rich Chocolate Cake a la Irvine Welsh is wicked).

White Lily by Ting-xing Ye (Doubleday, 2000) is a small, elegantly illustrated book with a simple story, in which a young girl of the Qing Dynasty evades footbinding and learns to read with the help of a sympathetic older brother. The most touching element of the book, I think, is that the author remembers the bound feet of her aunt, an "old maid" at twenty-three who lived with her family; I appreciate her restraint in not telling this aunt's or her own story, but choosing to creating meaningful fiction out of her memories instead. Still, I'm looking forward to reading her memoir about growing up during the Cultural Revolution, which is coming out in 2007.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


Girl Meets Girl Meets God

Borrowed Girl Meets God by Lauren F. Winter (Random House, 2002) from a fellow-member of a retreat planning committee, while in Toronto for a meeting. How providential everything was that day. It was Pentecost, and the depth of my personal retreat from all things churchy was revealed to me by the fact that Pentecost took me completely by surprise. The sermon gave me a boost on the backside, to start with; the meeting was productive and inspiring, and the book, which I began to read on the way home, has been like toeholds out of the place I have been for over a year. And which I would like to leave, now. Thanks be to God.

The author was a zealous convert to Orthodox Judaism as a teen, and then during college she converted to Christianity, and is now a lucid and passionate Episcopalian. The combination of felt experience and layered understanding in this book is really irresistable. I appreciated the organizational structure (the liturgical year) and though a few of the pieces were simply okay, every piece offered at least a striking image or new pairing of ideas. I'm planning to buy a copy for myself, and maybe one for the sister who also scored "Orthodox Jew" on the beliefnet "Belief-O-Matic Quiz". (Interesting aside: Winter is/was a contributor to beliefnet.)

Monday, June 05, 2006


From Alice

The other bargain book I picked up last time was The Probable Future by Alice Hoffman (Doubleday, 2003). This was was fun. Okay, all the "their kisses were so hot that raindrops sizzled when they landed" stuff gets a bit cheesy, sometimes, and there's an awful lot of perfect true love, but the story is entertaining. Fairy tales, really—but I like fairy tales. Alice's world is a pretty clean one, though. Not very dark (certainly not as dark as a lot of fairy tales!). A bit childlike—maybe 12, or innocent 13?

Until the next book, I'm occupied with a couple of Vanity Fairs and an Utne Reader, which I borrowed from the library. The thing I like about Vanity Fair is that there are no tips and hints. (How I hate all the perky hectoring in the pages of "women's" magazines! It's toxic—do this, be that.) The writing is okay, the photography fantastic, of course; but it does get a bit much rather soon (Pilgrim that I am) so I don't dip into it too regularly. One of the issues I picked up was the "green" issue, all about things environmental. The cover was amazing. The contents, interesting. How nice that Julia Roberts drives a Prius. I would, too, if I were driving around Los Angeles doing errands. (snark!)

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